Disagreeing with the River: A Response to Jon Bois

Jon Bois is one of my favorite writers online, up in that Mallory Ortberg tier, but his stuff is harder to characterize than any of my other favorites. A lot of his humor writing, especially on Twitter, is in the style of “enthusiastic bumpkin” or “e-mailing relative”—see his 50 fast facts about Super Bowl XLVII, for instance—and yet he’s also capable of real poignancy. A lot of that poignancy comes from his appreciation of randomness and error in supposedly ordered systems: witness Breaking Madden, or my favorite post of his on the death of the NBA, both of which involve him setting up a sports video game with certain odd parameters and just seeing what happens.

Last week, Bois’s love of randomness got its most direct expression yet, through a post purporting to explain what exactly constitutes a “catch” in the NFL. This has been a frustrating topic in football, as high-def instant replay has turned what used to be a quick, if often wrong, decision by the officials into a thicket of legalese and post-facto rationalizations (as I’ve written about here previously). Bois’s piece on the matter—you should go click that link, before I spoil it here—starts off looking like it’s going to be another one of his “the naïf looks at a sports issue” posts, but it ends up going somewhere very different: to a philosophical look about why, exactly, we care about settling this issue and how we could choose to look at it instead. It’s an approach I’d like to see more of in sports writing, one that scrutinizes the assumptions that are so often unspoken in these kinds of issues. It’s also a piece I disagree with on a key point, and it motivated me to think about the beauty I find in sport’s order, as opposed to its randomness.

Continue reading

Embrace the Wrongness: What Replay Is and Isn’t For

I’m gratified by all the attention given to my last post, about writers engaging bad opinions by nobodies! There have been a couple of responses in particular that I greatly appreciated. Dan Brooks expanded on the post by talking about how prevalent this practice is more generally, not in sports—only two weeks ago we had the fake #BoycottStarWarsVII controversy, in which people were embarrassingly eager to disagree with folks who were too racist to see a Star Wars movie—and arguing that “finding a bad argument to disagree with is functionally equivalent to bringing that argument into existence.” On the other hand, Craig Calcaterra, whose tweets I criticized in the post, wrote a thoughtful response in which he pointed out that though these opinions seem insignificant, taken together they make up the audience expectations for sports talk radio and the like. It’s all part of a larger debate the Internet is having right now, in the age of social media and click-based journalism: are awful views better shamed, or ignored? How do we tell the attention-seeking trolls from the earnest folks who might legitimately be persuaded?

But anyway, enough with media criticism for now. Let’s get back to rules disputes.

Continue reading

Debut Post: Fixing Instant Replay

Hi! Welcome to the inaugural post of The Spiel, my new sports blog. Auspiciously enough, I’m starting this blog right as people are proclaiming the end of blogging, but hopefully that only applies to politics blogs.

I want this to be a blog about the kinds of sports discussions that tend to get bogged down in fruitless, repetitive arguments between, well, teams: purists versus moderns, traditionalists versus statheads. In these arguments, the advocates for each side tend to share the same points among themselves and then repeat those the same points back to their opponents; each side gets so used to responding to the other side’s tired arguments that the discussion calcifies. My point in this blog will not be to say that “the truth is somewhere in between”—personally, I lean towards the moderns nearly every time—but to point out the kinds of more nuanced points that get missed by this kind of polarization, in the hopes of making discussions fresher, more interesting, and more complex than they so often tend to be.

One good example of the kind of debate I’m talking about is the debate over instant replay review. Granted, this may not seem like the most timely time to enter this discussion, which—at least in football and baseball, the two biggest American sports—would appear to be resolved: both sports have replay review and they’re not going back. But in fact I think the discussion is as timely as ever, since the implementation of replay in both sports—in football since 1999, in baseball since just last year—has shown replay’s potential to both enhance and harm the entertainment on the field, which is after all the purpose of all rules and officiating: to keep the game as entertaining as possible. If this sounds like a radical idea, it’s only because we wrongly treat “entertainment” and “spectacle” as synonyms; conventional sports entertain by giving us a fair competition governed by clear and enforced rules. Replay aids in this enforcement, but whenever its benefit is outweighed by the harm it does to other aspects of the game’s entertainment, it should be considered a failure, and reworked.

It seems to me that the most common arguments for and against replay review have lost sight of the goal of entertainment: the anti side ignores the ways in which officiating mistakes hurt the product on the field, while the pro side sees correctness, not entertainment, as the ultimate goal. After a fairly lengthy consideration of the issues involved here, I’d like to suggest an idea that I haven’t seen anyone suggest before: a time limit on replay reviews, to distinguish between calls which are merely incorrect (and should be reluctantly tolerated) and calls which are bad (and should be eliminated at all costs). Almost everything wrong with replay, it seems to me, could be fixed by making this distinction.

Continue reading